Elaine Pearson: 'Malaysia falls short'

Malaysia was accused last week of ‘playing volleyball’ with the lives of six trafficked Burmese children, one as young as 10, now being held in a Malaysian detention camp. The country’s track record on asylum seekers and trafficking victims has drawn widespread criticism, particularly last year following the arrest of several immigration officials on human trafficking charges.

Elaine Pearson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), tells DVB that the situation for migrants in Malaysia remains bleak, with the government failing to take adequate steps to improve living conditions and stem the flow of human trafficking.

What effects will the recent crackdown in Malaysia have on the rights of Burmese migrants in the country?

In Malaysia, unfortunately the situation for migrants is quite dire, although there have been some improvements in terms of refugee protection. The [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] now has access to some of the detention camps that it didn’t have before. What we’re seeing is that round-ups of undocumented migrants are continuing, and people are being sent to these detention camps. Conditions in these detention camps are very bad; in fact so bad that some people have been dying of malnutrition and disease. And precisely because they are not deporting a lot of the Burmese to the Thai-Malaysia border anymore the conditions are actually over crowded.

How do you view the Malaysian response to the reclassification of Malaysia to a Tier 3 nation by the US state department?

I think it’s a reflection that in Malaysia, Burmese migrants are extremely vulnerable, not only to traffickers and forced labour in the country but also to the complicity of government officials that are actually involved in that trafficking. So Malaysia was put in Tier 3 because there was this US senate foreign relations committee report on the trafficking of migrants at the border. And what that report found was that actually immigration officials are complicit in handing migrants directly over to traffickers at the border. When they get to the border they are basically given a choice either to pay money or else be sold onto a fishing boat or on to a brothel if they’re a woman. So you know really we have done a lot of interviews ourselves in Malaysia where migrants have talked about this problem and talked about how they have had to pay really quite large sums of money in order to return to Malaysia.

So the Malsyian government has taken some steps to address trafficking; they now have a new trafficking law which is quite comprehensive and there have been some moves to prosecute officials. So there have been investigations into corrupt immigration officials in some of these cases; however really we feel that this has to go a lot further. We want to see convictions of the government officials that are involved in those abuses and we also want to ensure at the same time that there are legal opportunities for Burmese to remain in Malaysia otherwise they are all forced into this very vulnerable situation where they are liable to be trafficked or otherwise exploited because there aren’t enough opportunities legally to remain in Malaysia.

Do you think that Malaysia should cease its guest worker program [where employers legally ‘sponsor’ migrants to work] or try and assimilate refugees instead of getting more guest workers?

Well, I think the guest worker program needs to be reformed in certain ways so that it provides basic labour protections to workers. There are a lot of problems in that it doesn’t cover certain sectors of work for people from certain countries but we feel at the same time there needs to be better refugee protection. Those who come to Malaysia in an undocumented fashion but do have legitimate claims to refugee status; they should be able to work in Malaysia and Malaysia should consider not only resettling them to third countries but enabling them to stay in Malaysia in a stable way for a longer period of time.

What in your view can nations like Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh do with regards to the Rohingya?

Well HRW issued a report about the Rohingya back in the 1990s and last year we issued another report on the Rohingya and I was very sad to say that basically the conditions in Malaysia have not really changed. Really the Malaysian government has to recognise that there are serious concerns for the Rohingya’s safety inside Burma so these people do have a legitimate claim to refugee status and we would like to see Malaysia sign on to the refugee convention. We would also like to see other nations that are affected to actually increase their standards of protection for people fleeing situations of persecution.

Do you think a third nation should start taking Rohingya in as refugees?

Absolutely, we think there should be opportunities for Rohingya to register their claims as refugees, which at the moment they experience difficulties in doing so in Malaysia, but we also feel that the Malaysian government should be providing refugees in Malaysia with better protection. While there have been some improvements, there is really such a long way to go for Malaysia to fulfil international standards. So now you have the refugee agency actually able to go and register people in detention centres. But Malaysia really needs to take it to the next step of providing protection to people who are in the country.

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